BLOG 47 18/04/2017 Mimar Sinan and the Süleymaniye Mosque.

Posted in on 26 April, 2017 in News

 Mimar Sinan and the Süleymaniye Mosque.

Sultan Mahmud II, considered amongst many to be the last of the great Ottoman leaders before the empire fell into decline, loved Çamlıca, a beautiful area that he referred to it in his poetry with the line: “My heart is full of desire, my great lover. Let’s go to Çamlıca tomorrow, my dear Lord.” The view from Camlica overlooks the Bosphorus strait that divides the city’s Asian and European districts and offers splendid views of the ships and ferries traversing the waterway, the ancient city’s architectural treasures and the rolling landscapes surrounding them. Even though many of Istanbul’s architects oppose it, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey and founder of the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is building a new mosque here saying that “Every political power wants to leave a legacy.” In this statement he particularly evokes the era of Süleyman the Magnificant and his collaboration with the great architect, Mimar Sinan, the crowning achievement being that of the  Süleymaniye Mosque.

The central dome of the Süleymaniye

KOCA MIMAR SINAN is considered to be the greatest Ottoman architect. The son of a stonemason, he was born into a Christian family in 1490, near Kayseri in Anatolia and conscripted under the devsirme system of the day –a forceful conversion – to the “masters of carpenters”. His background is still disputed yet there are three brief records in the library of the Topkapi Palace, dictated by Sinan to his friend and biographer Mustafa Sâi Çelebi. (Anonymous Text; Architectural Masterpieces; Book of Architecture) In these manuscripts Sinan divulges certain details of his youth and military career. His father is referred to as “Abdülmennan”, translated as “Servent of the Generous and Merciful one”, a title which was commonly used in the Ottoman period to define the non-Muslim father of a Muslim convert. At the age of twenty-two, Sinan was recruited into the Ottoman Janissary Corps – the Sultan’s elite army. During his military career he travelled throughout the empire as far as Baghdad, Damascus, Persia and Egypt. At every stage he noted his observations:

“I saw the monuments, the great ancient remains. From every ruin I learned, from every building I absorbed something.”

Minar Sinan

Interior of the Sehzade Mosque

By the age of fifty, Sinan had acquired a reputation as a valued military engineer and was made head of the Office of Royal Architects by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. (1520-66). It was through the building of the Sehzade Mosque that Sinan’s genius was finally acknowledged earning him the title “mimar” (meaning master builder, great or big) The mosque was built upon the death of Süleyman’s favourite son, Prince Mehmet, although it is thought that work began on the mosque months before the heir apparent’s death due to smallpox. At the time the Sehzade Mosque was considered one of the most remarkable of Sinan’s architectural works.

Süleyman the Magnificent was quick to realize that Sinan could give him a building that would enhance his power and prestige throughout the Ottoman Empire and beyond – the great mosque that was to be known as the Süleymaniye. Work began in 1550 on the site once occupied by the Byzantine Capitol and the old palace which was destroyed by fire. Sinan never intended to surpass the Hagia Sophia in its splendour even though he was capable of doing so, but he certainly used it as inspiration. Instead, he chose to accentuate the mosque’s difference by lateral extension along with other architectural differences and in the end produced a mosque filled with crystalline luminosity and purity that differs from the shadowy mystery of the Hagia Sophia with its frescos and mosaics.

A miniture depicting Minar Sinan during the construction of The Suleymaniye

In his Book of Travels, the Ottoman traveller, Evliya Çelebi, born in Istanbul in 1611, writes a whole article on the building of the Süleymaniye and his descriptions give us a great insight into the enormous undertaking of such a project.

According to Çelebi, work began in the year 1543 and finished in 1557. He writes: “how many thousands of master architects, builders, labourers, stonecutters and marble cutters from all the Ottoman dominions had he gathered! And for three whole years, 3000 galley slaves, foot-bound in chains, would lay the foundations deep into the ground, so deep that the world-bearing bull at the bottom of the earth could hear the sound of their pick-axes.”

“In three years they completed the walls as far as the vaults of the dome on all four sides. After that, they constructed the lofty dome.” Çelebi tells us that “the indigo-coloured dome of this great mosque is more spherical than the Hagia Sophia. Apart from the square piers supporting this incomparable dome, there are four porphyry columns from the city of ? in Egypt transported along the Nile to Alexandria. From there, Karinca Kapudan (‘Admiral Ant’) loaded them onto rafts, and with favourable wind, brought them to Unkapanu in Istanbul and then to Vefa Square.  When he delivered the four columns to Süleyman Khan at the mosque, he recited the verse,

“The ants presented Soloman

A Locust’s leg;

Whatever of ours suits you

Accept, I humbly beg.”

As a reward, the Kapitan was granted governorship of Yilanli (Spurie) and Rhodes islands.

“The multi coloured stained windows were the work of Sarhos (‘Drunkard’) Ibrahim. Mere men are too impotent to praise them” leaving one to wonder just how drunk Ibrahim was to have created such works of art.

“There are 22,000 lamps in total and thousands of chandeliers. And there are ? windows all around the mosque, through each of which blows a gentle breeze that refreshes the congregation as though they have entered Paradise. By God’s command, this mosque has a pleasant fragrance that perfumes the brain; but it has no resemblance to the scent of earthly flowers”

There is also a dedication to the master calligrapher, Karahisari. “There has never been to this day, nor will there ever be, any calligraphy like that of Ahmed Karahisari, both inside and outside this mosque. The Creator granted him success in this field. First in the centre of the big dome, is inscribed the verse: God is the light of the heavens and the earth. His light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of star-like brilliance”

Evliya Çelebi goes on to tell us so much more; far too much to describe in one blog. What is so special about his writing is the manner in which he portrays the greatness of all who contributed with such poetic flourish, something so typical of how Ottoman society at the time viewed such artistic endeavours.

The carrying-in of a model of Süleymaniye Mosque (Detail from Surname-i Hümayun) between 1582 and 1588 Surname-i Hümayun by Nakkaş Osman

It appears that during the construction of the four minarets, work stopped for a year on one particular minaret to allow the foundation to settle. In the meantime Süleyman started work on other projects. When Shah Tahmasp, the King of Persia heard of the halt to construction “he immediately dispatched a great embassy with 1000 purses of money and a box of all kinds of valuable jewels.” In the accompanying letter, he wrote “I have heard that you did not have the funds to complete the mosque and so you put a halt. Due to your friendship, I have sent you this amount of money from the treasury and these jewels. Sell them and spend the money, and take plans to finish the mosque. Let us share in your pious works.” Needless to say, Süleyman was so incensed that in the presence of the emissary he distributed 1000 purses of money to the Jews of Istanbul, and not a grain was left. He addressed the emissary, saying: “The heretic on judgement day will be an ass beneath the Jew”

After saying the jewels were worthless next to his precious mosque, Süleyman then gave Sinan the jewels who used them to decorate the grooves of the minaret now known as the Jewel Minaret.

During his lifetime, Sinan created over 300 structures and considered the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne to be his greatest masterpiece but it would not be as famous as the Süleymaniye. Most of his projects were produced during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent but he also worked for Selim II and Murad III

The Selimiye Mosque in Edirne

He died in 1588 and is buried in a tomb next to his patrons, Sultan Süleyman and his beloved wife Sultana Haseki Hürrem, also known as Roxelana, in the cemetery just outside the walls of the Süleymaniye. Across the road is a street named in his honour, Mimar Sinan Caddesi. The headstone on his Türbe (tomb) bears that of a turban.

The Tomb of Minar Sinan

Tomb of Süleyman the Magnificent

Landesmuseum Mainz, der Prächtige von Anton Hickel (Roxelana and Süleyman the Magnificent)

References: “Turkey from the Selçuks to the Ottomans” by Henri Stierlin.

“Architecture of the islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning” by George Michell.

“An Ottoman Traveller. Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi” Edited and translated by Robert Dankoff & Sooyong Kim.

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